The Music of Eric von Essen
Shortly into the third volume of The Music of Eric von Essen, Eric’s former bandmates from Quartet Music offer an interpretation of “Unresolved.” The piece seems particularly indicative of von Essen’s career in several ways. In the capable hands of Jeff Gauthier on violin, Nels Cline on guitar, Alex Cline on percussion and, in Eric’s spot, Michael Elizondo on bass, the dark, rolling melody negotiates its way through complex changes with ease and grace, never quite finding its way to the tonic home hinted at throughout. This is a feeling that much of the music considered on this project shares: von Essen’s work is bursting with graceful melodies that constantly and brilliantly avoid resolution, never accomplishing the sense of an ending.
As with the work, so too with the life, which ended prematurely in 1997 when von Essen had only recently embarked on a reinvigorated stint of composing. On an individual level, it seems that the musicians who have come together to record The Music of Eric von Essen series have come in part to search of some sense of resolution. Jeff Gauthier, a longtime collaborator with von Essen and the guiding force behind this project, says “From a purely personal point of view, the whole process was a way to deal with my own grief at the loss of a friend, and also a way to keep his music alive. I simply couldn’t imagine a world without Eric’s music, and the prospect of living without it was unacceptable to me.”
Consequently, the three albums exist not only as a stunning artistic artifact but also as a meditation on the solitude and emotion of friends working through the unanswered questions of death. This in part accounts for the amazing sense of empathy and communication that all of the ensembles display. Gauthier continues: “I’ve had a strong feeling throughout that Eric was the one whose intention directed the choices of musicians and the music…because his genius and his intention was so strong when he was alive, and that intention still lives and manifests itself in the music.”
The ecclectic scope and depth of the compositions considered on this series gives evidence to von Essen’s broad musical influences and interests. Born in 1954 to parents of Swedish and East Indian descent, Eric began as a guitarist and pianist, mastering both before turning to the bass at the age of 21. He would go on to master and record on the cromatic harmonica, ‘cello and tablas as well. In terms of influences, he is indebted to jazz artists including Bill Evans, Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett, as well as classical composer J.S. Bach, Guatav Mahler and Igor Stravinsky. The ways that these American jazz and European classical traditions meet and influence each other is an ongoing dynamic that underpins all of von Essen’s writing.
Eric moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s to study composition at UCLA. It was during this period that he and Gauthier, who was studying at California Institute of the Arts, first worked together in the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra. Gauthier remembers the moment in the Young Musicians ensemble when his relationship with Eric was cemented: “After one rehearsal when most of the other musicians had left, Eric went over to the piano which was by the violin section and started to play “All Blues”….As he played he looked right at me. In those days I would have been intimidated to improvise in front of all those classical hot-shots, but for some reason his recognition that I was an improviser at heart led me to join in and play with him.” This impromptu moment was to mark the inauspicious beginning of what would become Quartet Music, an eleven-year exploration into fusing chamber and jazz music that marked a period of great growth for all four musicians involved and was the forum in which von Essen’s composing talents reached their maturity.
The other half of Quartet Music grew out of a collaboration between von Essen and guitarist Nels Cline, the two of whom began playing as a duo in 1976 and would continue to play together for 12 years. This duo is represented on the first track of the third volume, with Cline on 12-string acoustic and Ken Filiano on bass doing Eric’s “Blues for Me” which gives a good indication of the shape of things to come. An eerie opening passage moves into a dramatic bowed bass solo that builds steam towards Cline’s solo, which in turn subsides into the introspective melody. Cline cites von Essen as the single most important influence on his musical life. “Eric was a genius, a prodigy, a musical phenomenon,” Cline said. “He’s the most important musical influence in my life, period. At a time when I was trying to find out certain things about music making, he had them well in hand.”
In 1979, Gauthier, von Essen, Nels and percussionist Alex Cline formed Quartet Music. This group marked the most extensive fusing of chamber and jazz elements in Eric’s career. The large majority of the group’s pieces were written by the bassist. “Eric said school ruined composition for him,” Alex Cline said. “But once Quartet Music got started he wrote a whole salvo of music.” The songs are characterized by numerous melodic shifts, rhythmic and harmonic modulations and odd time signatures. Considering the effect this group had on the artistic lives of its members, the pieces recorded by the reunited Quartet Music hold a special place on the recordings. Remembering the sessions, Gauthier says that these were “the most intense for me, not only because I was performing, but because none of us had played some of that music in over 10 years. It was surprising how well we all remembered it, and at the same time how difficult it was. Also, it has since become apparent how much we had all improved as musicians.”
The first volume closes with the darkly lilting “Departure,” the first song Eric wrote for Quartet Music. It has the same sense of indeterminacy that much of the music von Essen wrote for Quartet Music has, the same play of darkness and light and the bittersweet melody rising over the steadily shifting harmonies.
While Quartet Music occupied much of von Essen’s creative output throughout the 1980s, he was also active as a freelance jazz bassist and was becoming more and more infatuated with the simpler forms of the classic jazz canon. Many of the musicians who contributed to The Music of Eric von Essen series met Eric and his music through this side of his career. Alan Broadbent, Tom Garvin, Putter Smith, Jeff Colella, Jimmy Rowles and Eric were all in a group of musicians performing regularly at Linda’s, a restaurant that featured piano and bass duos from 1983 to 1987. Tom Garvin, who, with bassist John Heard, was playing the set after Eric and Jeff Colella, remembers Eric as one of the few musicians who would stay through the whole evening, taking in all the music he could. “He was like a sponge,” Garvin says. “He was watching John Heard every night.”
This provided a springboard and a venue for von Essen to compose and try out his more straightforward jazz numbers. The outgrowth of the scene at Linda’s is represented by several of the ensembles on these recordings, comprised largely of musicians who were playing at the restaurant. There is a quintet featuring Jimmy Rowles’ daughter Stacy on trumpet and flugelhorn, Tom Garvin on piano, Larry Koonse on guitar, Tom Warrington on bass and Paul Kreibich on drums, a trio of Alan Broadbent on piano, Putter smith on bass, and Kendall Kay on drums, and a quartet with saxophonist Chuck Manning, pianist Theo Saunders, bassist Darek Oles and drummer Ralph Penland.
The material recorded by these ensembles sticks closer to standard jazz harmonies and changes, while still having some of Eric’s harmonic trademarks. “Finska Flues,” recorded by the quintet and released on the third volume, is an up-tempo romp whose ebullient head belies its tricky intervalic leaps and turns. The piano trio of Broadbent, Smith and Kay swings its way through “Blues Puzzle,” which, although not a standard blues form (perhaps part of the puzzle) certainly employs traditional blues harmonies in its head. Evident in these pieces, as in the extended pieces Eric was writing for Quartet Music, is his natural talent for building artful, memorable melodies.
The ability to write within and master a variety of idioms was another one of von Essen’s strengths as a composer. Gauthier comments, “He had a particular talent not only for writing for people’s strengths both musically and emotionally, but also for finding theory musical edge and writing right up to it. In Quartet Music he had a unique group of musicians who had been playing together for over 12 years and had been influenced by many kinds of music. Consequently his palette was quite large and varied. Toward the end of his life he worked mostly with musicians who were heavily steeped in the jazz tradition. This was not a limitation to Eric at all, and in many ways represented a challenge. It was his particular genius to be able to deeply understand this tradition and write music that extended and developed it in ways that seem perfectly natural, and at the same time, he put his own individual stamp on it.”
Eric continued to immerse himself in classic jazz recordings and in the scores of Gustav Mahler, while maintaining the exhausting life of an in-demand session and live bassist. During this time he was working extensively with pianist Jimmy Rowles in a duo that focused largely on jazz balladry. Due to the many distractions inherent to the lifestyle, his compositional output had slowed considerably by the beginning of the 1990s. In 1993, an opportunity to take a teaching post in Sweden presented itself, which turned out to provide a perfect environment for him to refocus on his writing. Tom Garvin, who recommended Eric for the position at the Swerigefinska Folkhogskolan in Haparanda, Sweden, says “He found himself an artistic and spiritual home there…he had a nice combination of musical companionship, friends, plenty of time and a certain amount of seclusion that you need to really do serious writing.”
The various strains of his musical career seem to have coalesced in the writing of this period, and his talents reach some of their expressive heights in several of the pieces from this time. “Love Song for Kirsi,” has as heartbreaking a melody as any in jazz, and receives a beautifully simple treatment by the quintet of Rowles, Garvin, Koonse, Warrington and Kreibich, with Rowles and Koonse both closely following the melodic theme in their solo breaks. The mid-tempo “Silvana” that starts the series, performed by pianist Alan Pasqua, bassist David Carpenter and drummer Peter Erskine, is built around a deceptively complex repeated bass vamp that Carpenter and Erskine lock in on underneath a soaring solo by Pasqua. Also from this period and probably composed for one of the ensembles von Essen was coaching in Sweden is “Peacemaker,” performed on the album by Nels and Alex Cline, pianist David Witham, and bassist Joel Hamilton. This will be a treat for listeners familiar with the Cline brothers’ more electric work, as Nels attacks the head with his trademark angularity before taking a fully plugged-in solo.
One of the final words of the project is delivered by a quintet assembled to record a piece Eric wrote while in Sweden, which he showed to vocalist Kate McGarry shortly before his death. The lyric that McGarry put to the tune, here performed along with pianist Karen Hammack, guitarist Steve Cardenas, bassist Scott Colley and percussionist Kenny Wollesen, gets at the ambiguities of Eric’s life and his oeuvre. One of the few things that can be said generally about von Essen’s remarkably varied output as a composer is that it at all times realizes a tenuous balance between beauty and sadness. This is also a quality that many people who knew Eric personally remember in him. “He saw the beauty of life through a glass darkly,” Alex Cline said. Or, as McGarry puts it: “’Through whose eyes can I see this world true? / Wake me when this dream of life is through / Looking out upon your world of sleep, / One eye laughs and one eye weeps.”
The performances and production quality of the series is impeccable without exception and, in addition to being a moving tribute to an important composer, also offers a sampler of many of the most important musicians playing in the contemporary Los Angeles jazz scene.
The Music of Eric von Essen, Vol. I, II, & III are available at Cryptogramophone's website, www.cryptogramophone.com
By Bruce Wallace